In the Chamber of Risks: Understanding Risk Controversies


388 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-2246-8
DDC 363.17'2'0971




Reviewed by Dave Bennett

David Bennett is the national director of the Department of Workplace Health, Safety and Environment at the Canadian Labour Congress in Ottawa.


William Leiss is an accomplished essayist and social critic of
government regulatory policy in particular. This latest collection
includes public policy discussion of such topics as genetically modified
foods, the fuel additive MMT, pulp mill effluent, and (centrally)
toxic-substances legislation. All the essays are learned, perceptive,
and lucidly argued, required reading for anyone interested in the
regulation of environmental health hazards.

There is also a general framework for the critical analysis of these
issues, which in outline goes like this: (i) a tacit premise that the
status quo is really all right unless we have special reasons to change
it; (ii) these special reasons are always scientific, not social; (iii)
science is always to be construed narrowly in terms of a particular
technique known as risk evaluation or risk assessment, which must be
communicated through “risk dialogue;” (iv) the public has a
legitimate interest in determining the outcome of risk assessment; and
(v) resulting action is always to be undertaken through one, and only
one, practical strategy known as risk management.

This framework can be challenged at each phase, but Leiss offers no
vindication of his chosen pathways. For instance, radical social critics
can start from a wholly different perspective on the status quo; the
reasons for wanting change can be far broader than the scientific; risk
assessment is only one of many possible scientific strategies; the
public may not want to engage in a risk-assessment dialogue when the
outcome has only marginally different consequences for action; and some
parties don’t merely want risks “ managed,” they want them
addressed and the issues resolved. For instance, pollution-prevention
programs, as successfully practised in some U.S. states, bypass the
risk-assessment process completely, refusing to allow it to mediate and
compromise the extent of preventive activity.

In view of the recent work on alternatives to risk assessment and the
precautionary principle, Leiss’s efforts can seem narrow,
conservative, and dated. Within their narrow confines, however, his
arguments are highly persuasive. This is a book by a master in the


Leiss, William., “In the Chamber of Risks: Understanding Risk Controversies,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 21, 2024,